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For victims of British colonial rule, the Twentieth Century won`t go away

by James Graham 

Posted: 11 October 2006
Word Count: 1295
Summary: I feel ashamed posting this as I haven't been active in the group for quite a while. Poetry Group 1 is almost a full time job! I shall try to mend my ways and spend some time here.

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For victims of British colonial rule, the Twentieth Century won't go away

A recent Rory Bremner sketch has Condi Rice telling George Bush that in the fifties Iran was a democracy. 'That so?' he says. 'I guess they were overthrown by a bunch of towel-heads'. 'No sir. They were overthrown by the CIA'. 'Well, that's all past history,' he says. A follow-up line sums up the attitude to history of people like George Bush: 'What happened in the twentieth century stays in the twentieth century'.

This week a group of ageing Kenyans and their lawyers are resurrecting the twentieth century again, in a way that may bring some discomfort to Bush's poodle before he finally departs for the poodle sanctuary. They are bringing a test case against the British Government, seeking compensation for the brutalities of the colonial regime in Kenya in the 1950s.

These are some of the things that were done - a few instances from an immense catalogue of cruelty. Security forces would arrive in a country district without warning, force the people out of their homes, then torch the huts with everything inside. The Kikuyu village people would then be marched to a piece of open ground where they had to build themselves a concentration camp: erect their own huts, dig a trench all round the camp, and set up fences and watchtowers. When the camp was built, they were put to forced labour elsewhere. Refusal to work, even on grounds of sickness or weakness through lack of food, would result in beating, rape, castration or summary execution.

This herding of people into fenced compounds was known as 'villagisation', and its declared aim was to prevent supplies getting from the countryside to Mau Mau rebels in the forest. It was only part of the picture. There were also twenty or so main concentration camps, the largest of them some three or four square miles in area, as well as up to a hundred labour, 'reception', 'holding', and other camps. The inmates of these camps were mainly men, and those of the fenced villages mainly women.

Torture, execution for minor offences, and food deprivation were systemic. The rationale of the camps was to 'screen' prisoners and classify them according to how committed they were to Mau Mau. 'Screening' methods included hanging prisoners upside down, castration, sodomising with beer bottles, being tied to the back of a Land Rover and dragged through the camp, or being forced to run round in a circle for an hour carrying on the head a bucket full of excrement and urine. Those who resisted were shot - or in some cases, suffered a fate worse than shooting, such as being burned alive in a petrol-soaked sack.

Beginning on April 24, 1954, at attempt was made to remove the entire black population of Nairobi to camps. The logistics of this operation are familiar: people driven out of their homes, crammed on to the backs of lorries, and taken to the railway station from where they were transported to the camps in freight wagons. One of the camps even had an arched entrance, over which - whether by coincidence or in conscious imitation of the notorious Auschwitz motto - a sign 'Labour and Freedom' had been placed.

Neither this nor any other mass detention, however, amounted to an attempted Nazi-style genocide. A large percentage, possibly a majority, of the white settlers did believe that the entire Kikuyu 'race' should be wiped out; but although tens of thousands died in the camps and fenced villages, they were not death camps. (A few came uncomfortably close, especially the so-called 'exile' camps such as Mageta Island and the infamous Hola, where 'hard core' Mau Mau were supposed to be detained without hope of release.) If they were not death camps, they were certainly concentration camps; tens of thousands were killed and maimed in them, and the regime which built and managed them was a tyranny.

Mau Mau was unquestionably a terrorist organisation. But a 'balance sheet' of killings weighs heavily against the colonial authority. The number of white civilians murdered by Mau Mau was 60; some 2,000 Kikuyu collaborators - Home Guards, police, administrators and others - were also killed. In contrast, the number of dead at the hands of the colonial power was at least 50,000, of whom about 10-12% were active Mau Mau. None of this makes Mau Mau any 'better' than the British authorities; every murder, whichever side is responsible, is an atrocity. But in the scales against the colonial power another heavy weight must be placed: the fact that the British were there at all. They had expropriated huge tracts of the best land for themselves, evicted from this land the people who had farmed it for generations, and forced them on to overcrowded reserves where there was a growing number of landless poor - and, as time went on, malnutrition and famine. Their land grab resulted in mass poverty, in the Kenya countryside and the burgeoning slums of Nairobi, as had already happened in India, Malaya and every other corner of this great empire on which the sun never set. In the last resort, in order to hold on to their power and their stolen land they created a police state.

The pending lawsuit is much strengthened by the scholarship of an American historian, Caroline Elkins, whose book Britain's Gulag has won this year's Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. Every detail of the colonial oppression that I have cited in this article comes from this source. My few paragraphs merely skim the surface. The book gives us the clearest possible account of the history and politics of the Kenya Emergency, but the individual experiences of victims are everywhere in the book also. The sufferings endured by women are especially telling: women, for example, going out to dig ditches with their new-born babies strapped to their backs - babies born in many cases as a result of rape - and being struck by an overseer for stopping work to comfort the child. Sometimes a mother would steal a break while the overseer's back was turned, only to discover that her baby was dead.

If the case comes to court, Professor Elkins may be called as a witness. Even the book and the action together may not be enough to extract either compensation or a retrospective apology from Blair or Brown. But at least the assertion will be made once again: that there are people who are not prepared to let the past stay in the past.

At the time, under pressure from the left - especially its most resolute campaigner Barbara Castle - the Colonial Office did carry out an inquiry; but as so often happens with internal investigations, blame was laid on subordinates - the old 'bad apples' trick - while such men as Governor Sir Evelyn Baring and Colonial Secretary Alan Lennox-Boyd were not held responsible. After that, a veil was drawn over Kenya's troubles - not only by the British government, it has to be said, but equally by Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi, independent Kenya's first two presidents. 'Well, that's all past history,' as Bremner's George Bush tells us. Nail the 'bad apples' and then draw the veil.

It won't do at all. There are people still alive, and their children and grandchildren, who have to live with the legacy of the unjust and irresponsible acts of politicians. This disgraceful episode in twentieth-century history must not be swallowed in the mists of time. The veterans' case needs to be heard. Instead of airbrushing past oppressions out of the collective memory, governments should openly admit that injustices were done, and offer victims the compensation they seek - but more importantly, offer them acknowledgement and respect.

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Comments by other Members

Cornelia at 09:01 on 12 October 2006  Report this post
A thought-provoking and well-written piece. I think it raises issues some issues I will outline, not because I don't sympathise with this heartfelt plea for justice but in the interests of widening the perspective.

It is indeed a dreadful history that you outline. The oppressions you mention, particularly those suffered by women, seem endemic to nearly every armed conflict situation. I have a book called 'The Rape of Nanjing' in which the horrors of the Japanese occupation of China in 1939 are so graphically described, with photographic as well as victim testimony, that I can hardly bear to open it.

However, it is not so surprising that governments are shy of acknowledging the mistakes and atrocities of past regimes, especially colonisation. One only has to consider, for instance, Australia v. aboriginals, America v. native Americans, Japan v. a lot of places, ditto England, to be aware of the problems. Arguably these were different governments acting under different constraints, for which present regimes do not, or cannot, hold themselves responsible.

Your main argument seems to be that the passage of time is not enough to refuse restoration, but you don't suggest a time limit for apportioning blame. Current economic restraints, the fear of opening a 'floodgate', and discussion about how far people can be compensated and to what extent are also relevant. Hopefully the case you mention will provoke such discussions and give future goverments pause before they act. Will the USA ever compensate the peoples in countries it has virtually colonised?

In the case of Revolutions - French, Russian, Chinese and more recently in South Africa the privileged classes were stripped of their assets, usually with some force. Should these be restored in an attempt to compensate the sufferers' descendants? These issues, as with the the current conflict in Palestine, are unlikely to have simple solutions. Acknowledgement and respect are indeed due to the victims, but sorting out who are the perpetrators and who the victims, and deciding appropriate compensation could keep lawyers busy for a long time.


James Graham at 18:32 on 12 October 2006  Report this post
Cornelia, thank you for posting such a long and thoughtful comment. You’re right, it’s not surprising that governments are unwilling to acknowledge atrocities committed by former regimes. All the same I think they should be expected to do so. Everyone understands that fifty years after an event no politician currently in power can be held responsible; Tony Blair, for example, was an infant when the Kenya atrocities were going on. But that shouldn’t prevent a leader such as Blair from publicly acknowledging that a previous government oversaw serious human rights abuses. Any democratic leader should be concerned about the integrity and reputation of the democratic system and tradition of which he/she is a part, and should openly acknowledge its past episodes of failure, not appear to condone them.

Some governments have done pretty well, though. In 2000 the German government agreed a $5 billion compensation package for Jewish survivors and survivors of labour camps. Some of the survivors themselves said it was nothing more than a gesture - which is an understandable view for them to take, but not entirely fair, I think.

On the need for a time limit, I agree. If there were international law, and an international court, to deal with compensation, and the court set a time limit beyond which the case would be closed, I think that would be reasonable.

I wouldn’t be altogether happy to see former privileged classes being compensated. It shouldn’t be ruled out, but privileged classes tend to land on their feet anyway. In Kenya just after independence, European farmers were assured by Kenyatta that the past would be forgotten and they had nothing to fear from the new government - and many of them stayed, still making a good living out of land that just over half a century before had been taken by force from native people who had farmed it for generations.


di2 at 23:50 on 12 October 2006  Report this post
A very powerful and thought provoking piece.

Sheila/Cornelia's comment eloquently said the words I would have said if I could have framed my thoughts in an intelligent way.

You are so right to be filled with rage. However the problem is about the dark side of humanity. I believe the past can't be fixed (I can't believe I just wrote that but I do believe it). There are so many people to be compensated for the wrong doings of others. If the world was filled with reasonable people then all the races and civilisations would have a history completely different history. The earth would be healthy and the economies of all countries would be flourishing.

What amazes me is that there is no shortage of people who will perpetrate violence on others because they have been given the right by the authorities (whoever those authorities are i.e. their chief, their President, their Prime Minister, their King or Queen, their relative) to do so. I know a lot of people are coersed, however so many seem to enjoy themselves, for example the Abu Grab torture in Iraq (apologies for the spelling). Horrifying.

As we know, history repeats itself over and over. Without meaning to sound trivial on such a sad and grief filled subject, the movie "Ground Hog Day" tells us that we will keeping doing it over and over until we get it right. Unfortunately, the minds and hearts of those of us who live on the earth today have been conditioned to continue doing harm to each other and the earth at a micro and macro level. Even those of us who mean to do no harm, do harm.

I will think about your story for quite a while.

Remaining optomistic with difficulty,

Richard Brown at 09:39 on 13 October 2006  Report this post
Beautifully composed as ever, James, and straight to the point. Today's Guardian G2 section has a big piece about the atrocities and a cover picture as you may have seen. Shameful story.
I was rigorously schooled in the view that Brits always behaved honourably (I was so convinced that 'my side' would never err that when I saw, for the first time, one of the players on my favoured professional football team commit a crude foul I was traumatised. 'We' didn't do that kind of thing, or so I believed). On a much huger scale I remember the horror of reading about what was perpetrated by 'our chaps' in Korea in the fifties.
Given the surely undeniable fact that a great deal of this country's wealth stems from colonial exploitation the least we can do is offer belated 'compensation'to the Kenyans.


James Graham at 15:26 on 14 October 2006  Report this post
Di2, thank you for your comment. Sadly, the past can't be fixed - but past injustices can be officially acknowledged by the present-day political successors of those who committed them.

It never ceases to amaze me to see the number of people - mostly men, but a few women - who enjoy inflicting cruelty on others. There were people in Kenya at that time who were on cloud nine, because every day of their lives they could humiliate helpless people, or cause them pain. But I think the knowledge that they have carte blanche has a great deal to do with it, i.e. the fact that the authorities not only allow torture and murder but even encourage and reward it. In a stable society under the rule of law such people - most of them, at least - fortunately can't find outlets for their sadistic impulses.

Richard, many thanks. I missed the Guardian feature, but will look for it online. Like you, at school I was given a rather one-sided view of the British Empire. I vaguely recall being taught something about Mau Mau atrocities, but on the British side it was nothing but our civilising mission. Some truth in both (certainly in Mau Mau terrorism, but even the civilising mission - we can't say contact with Europeans did nothing but harm) but a very one-sided story all the same.


Cornelia at 11:19 on 15 October 2006  Report this post
Hello again. As often happens I forgot to tick the reply box after reviewing what I'd written, so missed these response when they were made. However, I just caught up with Thursday's G2 and read the article in question.

Another thing that occurred to me whilst I was reading was that the perpetrators were very often products of the public school system and had/have wealthy family backgrounds. In other words, their view of Johhny Foreigner, especially poor black ones wouldn't have been exactly sympathetic. Unfortunately, as we've seen from many film and literary portrayals, the people who ran the Empire were precisely the ones who shouldn't have been allowed to be in charge.

Compensation, in my opinion, should be sought from their 'estates' or whover inherited from them - they shouldn't be too difficult to trace from company or service records. That way, if there is a question of the government making restitution it won't be ordinary people who pay, through their taxes. Tax-payers money is better spent on health and education than correcting the destructive acts of the rich and powerful. The same goes for when the Guantanamo Bay victims make their claims. Blair's coffers, and those of his supporters, should be the first to be emptied - after Bush's, of course. Unfortunately, the same privilege which allows these inhumane operations also allows the perpetrators to avoiding responsibility.


James Graham at 20:55 on 17 October 2006  Report this post
Sheila, I agree. It's logical that compensation should be sought from the estates of the perpetrators - a proportion of it at least - rather than take it from the taxpayer. The logical conclusion probably is to bring the perpetrators to justice in an international court. It's just about too late for the camp commandants of Kenya - though some of them are still alive - but the perpetrators of Guantanamo are not only alive but still in power. We need something that even today, with the International Criminal Court actually in existence, still seems utopian - a body of international law which is enforceable, so that Bush and Blair would have to answer for having broken international human rights law. But as the Roman poet said, 'Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?' Who can bring justice to bear on those who define justice to suit themselves?


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